Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff
They work exhaustive hours and endure psychological challenges that might plague them for a lifetime, but the tools that could help clinicians process this trauma in real time — community, connection and social support — are elusive because of necessary lockdown orders and social distancing.
The isolation and separation are not mere inconveniences for health care workers, but instead, challenges that could impact their health and, over time, become a matter of life and death. Research conducted over the past few years by one of the authors (Dr. VanderWeele) and his colleagues at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health has shown how integral community — specifically regular church attendance — can be to health and well-being. In fact, new research of theirs released this month shows that weekly worship attendance can save the lives of the lifesavers, significantly lowering the risk of “deaths of despair,” attributed to suicide, drug overdoses or alcohol poisoning for the health care workers in the study.
No matter the religion, regular church attendance is beneficial
The study neither encourages nor discourages religion, and the research does not bend to favor one faith over another. Regular attendance was the study’s common denominator, no matter whether one was entering a mosque, temple, church or synagogue. But clearly and convincingly, the research found something unique in the faith experience and the communities that cultivate it.
Though this study began well before “COVID-19” even entered our lexicon, the data conveniently and importantly tracked health care workers and clinicians over a period of decades. Those who attended religious services at least once a week were significantly less likely to die from deaths of despair than their secular colleagues. Women who attended services at least once per week had a 68% lower risk of death from despair compared with those who didn’t attend services. Men had a 33% lower risk.
This has heightened relevance during this pandemic, when extreme work demands on health care workers is commonplace and at a time when many religious services have been suspended. Ironically, the religious gatherings that were early hotbeds of the novel coronavirus’ transmission might be just the type of connection that health care workers — and people of all walks of life, really — need to help combat the isolation and strains of the pandemic.
Religious life in America has not ceased, of course, in spite of the shutdown orders. Many religious services are being conducted via video-conferencing; some have online discussions, prayer or Scripture studies; some have even established “drive-through” prayer or confessions. A recent study by Gallup has even indicated that levels of weekly religious service attendance, of some form, are in fact similar to what they were a year ago. These alternatives probably do not fully compensate for face-to-face meetings, but they may at least provide some of the powerful benefits of religious community.
We do not mean to second-guess public health officials or to suggest that reopening prematurely is a prudent course. Indeed, even religious teachings themselves may indicate that, out of love of neighbor, it is still best, in many communities, to stay closed until certain public health conditions are met. Nevertheless, there does need to be an acknowledgment that our lives have been upended and reordered by this pandemic, and we need to be aware of the cascading impact and identify solutions to fill these gaps.
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One of these impacts, we know, is an increasing risk of alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness as each day passes. Well Being Trust, a foundation dedicated to “mental, social and spiritual health,” issued a report last week warning that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to an additional 75,000 deaths of despair because of a confluence of three factors: a cratering economy and high unemployment, mandated social isolation and, of course, the uncertainty swirling around the pandemic.
Religion provides us with a focus outside of ourselves
Though Dr. VanderWeele’s research centered on health care workers, it’s a reasonable assumption that tens of millions of people could benefit from the community and redemptive qualities found uniquely in houses of worship. Religious participation might be an important antidote to despair and provide worshippers the tools to sustain hope and meaning in their lives — even when facing daunting and debilitating challenges. The study’s authors noted that religion could help to strengthen psychosocial resilience by fostering a sense of peace, a positive outlook and ultimately promoting social connectedness, even though today that might mean virtual church services and Zoom calls instead of church festivals or potluck dinners.
Some might wonder whether community itself — perhaps book clubs, bowling leagues or the like — might provide the same health benefits as what Dr. VanderWeele’s studies have found in the pews. One can certainly receive some measurable benefits from all sorts of community activities in ways that would be similar to those gained from church attendance, but there are notable differences. Church communities often become founts of hope and spiritual compasses for those congregants seeking a greater purpose in life. The teachings of many faith traditions provide an understanding and processing of suffering and the promise of redemption and a world beyond the earthly one.
Church attendance is not the panacea for drug and alcohol abuse or the many challenging manifestations of mental illness. The rise in deaths of despair in the United States over the past decade will not all be dealt with if the nearly half of Americans who don’t belong to a church suddenly do. Public health crises of any nature need cross-sector remedies that reach into the realm of the economy, social services and health care itself. Yet research has convincingly shown that religion can improve health outcomes and should be considered as one of many important tools in our public health toolbox. Holistic approaches to well-being are not truly holistic if they don’t factor in faith and spirituality.
When the United States does emerge from this crisis, we owe it to our front-line health care workers to ensure that the sacrifices they’ve made — some with their lives and many with associated traumas — are met with the gratitude of 330 million Americans. But rather than just poignant serenades and well-intended offers of gifts or free food or our deep admiration, we must devote ourselves to their well-being and give them the tools to heal themselves, as they have helped to heal the wounds of our nation.
One of those tools, we can say with scientific assurance, rests behind the open doors of our churches, temples, mosques and synagogues. These faith communities provide something that, in these times, can lift people’s hearts, minds and spirits — while also giving them hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Tyler J. VanderWeele is the Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He also directs the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. John Siniff is a former editor at USA TODAY’s Editorial Page and founder of the newspaper’s On Religion weekly series that examined the intersection of faith and public life. He now works at Subject Matter, a communications firm in Washington, D.C. Follow John on Twitter: @jmsiniff